Overheard in the front row of Dolce & Gabbana's recent Spring/Summer '04 show in Milan: Beyoncé constructing a little shopping list. As Naomi Campbell
shimmered down the runway in a Great Gatsby-esque cocktail dress dripping in Swarovski crystals, the singer looked on admiringly and murmured, "Will have to ask them to get that."
Here's betting she won't have to ask twice. Nothing, after all, makes Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana happier than when stars wear their designs—and these days, that means the thrills never stop. What did Catherine Zeta-Jones
don for a recent L.A. gala? A clingy orange Dolce & Gabbana gown. Salma Hayek
at a Beverly Hills fete? Black chiffon Dolce & Gabbana. "We have always been fascinated by the glamor of the world of movies," Gabbana says. "Stars wearing our clothes is a dream come true." Not that Tinsel-town's love of their sexy designs—a Marlene Dietrich-style suit here, a Sophia Loren slip dress there—is any surprise. "Their clothing," says pal Isabella Rossellini, "is always a homage to Hollywood."
Now Gabbana, 40, and Dolce, 45—partners professionally and personally for more than two decades—are celebrating their symbiotic relationship with the A-listers in a book of photographs called, simply, Hollywood. The $75 coffee-table tome (with proceeds going to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the Children's Action Network) "is a tribute," says Dolce. "We owe the stars 50 percent of our popularity in the U.S."
That popularity is growing fast. In addition to their high-end apparel for men and women, the duo has expanded to offer the less pricey D & G line and D & G Junior for kids. Their names are on sunglasses, watches and, as of last month, a fifth fragrance, called Sicily. This year they opened stores in Texas and New Jersey, bringing the number of U.S. shops to 16. Once, while visiting their Chicago outpost, the couple were even recognized on the street. "America is not a small country like Italy—it's really big," marvels Gabbana. "If people recognize you here, then for sure you are famous."
Fame-obsessed they may be, but they also know celebrity isn't everything. "We don't make money just because Julia Roberts
wears a Dolce & Gabbana dress," says Dolce. Certainly not the $550 million they rang up this year. "The success is because of tailoring, fabrics, good factories." And because they see beyond red-carpet finery. "Their clothes are not just for models," says Sarah Ferguson, who turned up at last month's show in a
Dolce & Gabbana skirt and jacket, "but also for the single working mother of two, like me."
Dolce is the detail man: He will sweat hours over the armhole on a jacket. "Daytime clothes need more attention," he says. "The suit is like a diamond—you wear it over and over."
Gabbana, meanwhile, lives for flash. "My customer is like me," he says. "He doesn't need another shirt or another pair of trousers but wants something new, something special."
Where they come together is in their passion for cinematic luxury. "We never felt glamor in our families," says Gabbana. "But we could appreciate it in the movies." Gabbana, raised in Milan by a factory-worker father and laundress mother, and Dolce, the Sicilian son of a tailor and a store clerk, met in 1980 while working at the same design studio in Milan. They shared a sensibility and, as it happens, a favorite film: The Leopard
, a 1963 Italian epic starring Burt Lancaster. With its 19th-century Sicilian setting, says Dolce, "that one has given us a lot of inspiration."
Using friends as models, they held shows wherever they could—even in a fast-food restaurant. (The invites looked like hamburgers.) The unconventional approach stirred enough buzz to land them a spot in Milan's 1984 fashion week. "I was 21," says Gabbana. "I thought, 'How can it be possible?' "
Starting with their earliest collections, they borrowed from Italian screen sirens. "Romantic, sensual, like Anna Magnani," says Dolce. "Then sexy, like Sophia Loren." But it was a contemporary star who helped break them internationally. Six years after its launch, the Dolce & Gabbana label was still little known outside Milan. Then a friend told them that Madonna
, in her 1991 documentary Truth or Dare
, talked them up onscreen. "I said, 'Maybe you are drunk,' " recalls Gabbana. "It was unbelievable." They let a month pass before finally slipping into a cinema to find that the best advertising they could get was not only free, but playing in a theater near...everyone.
Suddenly they were huge. They out-fitted Madonna
for her '93 tour and later Whitney Houston for hers. They befriended the celebs they had admired from afar. (Naomi Campbell
is such a close pal that she has a room in their villa on Stromboli, an island off Sicily.)
Success hasn't weakened their bond, though they do "have fights many, many times," admits Gabbana. "Over the collection...." "Or stupid stuff," Dolce adds. One thing they agree on: not selling their powerhouse label, despite receiving offers. And not splitting up. "We are complementary in work and in life and in everything. I think—no, I am certain—that some-one," says Dolce, pointing skyward, "decided we should be together."
Joanne Fowler in New York City and Simon Perry in Milan